"Thirty seconds to gate out," the helmsman calls out.
"Roger, Helmsman," Sora says. She turns to another of the crewmen. "Gunnery, status?"
"Standing by and ready to fry up some chicken," the Gunnery Chief says with a wide smile.
Sora frowns at him. "The Chief will refrain from extraneous comments." The Gunnery Chief manages to look chastened without losing his grin. I can't really blame him for his exuberance. Sometimes I feel like I've spent half my life in one fight or another but this was something special. All of us on the bridge are feeling it, even Sora, judging by her restless pacing. Glover had been slouching in his seat and dozing for most of the trip through the river but now even he was leaning forward and rubbing his hands together. Even though I had planned this assault singlehandedly, I wasn't about to infringe in his command of the Nidhoggr. Instead, I was standing behind his seat, flanked by Tiamat and Poisonseed.
The battlecruiser hits the gate and emerges into normal space. The rest of the fleet is not far behind. The destroyers, Hati and Skoll, split out wide while the Nidhoggr, drives straight on. The destination is a little grey ball of spinning rock known to us as 'Target Alpha.' As far as I know, the few humans who had visited the colony had never given it a human nickname. Most likely because they were illegal slaves and almost universally worked to death. The niao had some dumb whistle for a name. I had no idea what it meant. It didn't matter. What did matter was that the ball of rock was packed with rare metals and lightly defended.
In fact, the fleet protecting the colony consisted of a single outdated light cruiser and two patrol boats. We could have taken it even without the Niddhogr. But the point wasn't just to take it. It was to take it as quickly as possible and without losing a single ship of our own. To that end there was a big projection in the middle of the bridge. It had started with number eighteen and was counting down now that we were in the system. Eighteen hours to exterminate the fleet, secure the colony, loot as much as we possibly could and then gate out. The timing was essential. The light cruiser would be sending for reinforcements the second we engaged.
At the moment though, it was drifting in the same place it had been when we gated in, sending desperate queries to us. There was certainly no way they had any idea who and what we actually were but the niao captain would have to be beyond foolish not to be terrified. There were few peaceful reasons for a large fleet of war vessels to enter a system unannounced. What he was probably most scared of was that this was a hostile takeover by one of the other niao oligarchs.
"We are at extreme range," one of the sensor technicians announced.
"Acknowledged," Sora says. She looks to Glover. "Captain."
"Hold weapons and maintain velocity," Glover says, sounding much more professional
than usual. "Prepare to accept their hail."
"Captain?" Sora asks.
"You heard him," I say.
"Yes, Lord Lindwyrm." Sora then calls out, "Prepare to accept hail from codename Senile Watchman."
"Roger," the communications tech answers. "Putting it through now, ma'am."
I look around at my crew with their impeccable white uniforms, Poisonseed in her red and Tiamat in her black. Even Glover donned his pink domino mask for the occasion. It made me swell with pride I stepped forward. This was my moment.
A hologram of the niao captain materialized on the bridge. He was old, like his ship, with a short crest of violet and blue. He is chirping angrily the moment he appears, demanding, "What business do you have in this system? Identify yourselves at once!" His rant dies once he can see that it is not niao he his speaking to.
I vault off the raised platform where the captain's seat is located and land easily. Then I stalk up to the niao captain and hiss, "I am the Lindwyrm, lord and commander of Yggrasil."
"What? What?" the niao squawks. I'm speaking English and there is little chance he understands any of it. That's fine. This message isn't for him. He'll be atoms within the next few minutes. It's for after, when the news orgs cover this attack.
"We are the lost spirit of humanity, come to exact vengeance on the niao," I continue. "The niao will reap what they have sown and not one of you will escape our wrath." I make a chopping motion across my throat at the communications tech. Then I turn to Glover, "Captain, you have the go ahead to engage."
Glover grins with glee. "Helmsman, bring us up by twenty degrees and increase thrust. Chief, prepare to fire on my mark."
I return to my station and Poisonseed whispers, "Beautifully done, my lord." I grunt noncommittally. Perhaps I should have said more but my instinct was to remain cryptic for maximum panic. It would be very interesting to see the news feeds in a few hours.
Glover says, "Mark," and I refocus on the large screen on the far end of the bridge that is showing what is happening outside the ship. The feed comes from a myriad of cameras topside. The bridge itself is buried deep in the ship, so no unfortunate accidents could happen. The captain of the ship we dubbed Senile Watchman seems to have made the worst choice available. He's sent a patrol ship toward each of the destroyers and is attacking the Nidhoggr head on. Only a deep belief that humans couldn't possibly operate a warship correctly would allow him to make that choice. Every one of his ships was significantly outclassed. When simulating this battle, I discovered that the best choice was to attack one of the destroyers with all three ships. That gave the niao about a nine percent chance of critically damaging a major component of the fleet.
This choice was by far the best for us. The destroyers would have no issue annihilating the smaller patrol boats and the five seconds after the word 'mark' was uttered by Glover prove that the Senile Watchman is doomed. Nidhoggr sweeps over the top of the niao warship and the gunners unleash a massive broadside. I had chosen the loadout of the Nidhoggr to be exclusively Je'Techt heavy lasers and niao railguns. Niao typically used massive disrupters to weaken the structural integrity of ship armor and then penetrated the armor with the huge spikes their railguns spat. The Nidhoggr operated on the same philosophy, only the Je'Techt lasers did an even better job of weakening armor than disruptors.
The screen shows crimson lasers flashing into the Senile Watchman and melting through the metal plating. A second later, dozens of spikes, six-feet tall and made of a super-dense steel alloy, crash into the cruiser. Just that single volley reduces the Senile Watchman to a ruin. All power floods the ship and it is left nothing more that a drifting wreck. It's not enough. The point isn't just to defeat the niao here, it's to send a message to the rest of them. "Fire again," I order.
Tiamat straightens up and looks at me. I can't see her face, of course, but she seems surprised. Sora and Glover do not. They knew what this was. "Helm," Glover says. "Twenty degrees starboard and cut acceleration sixty percent. Chief, on my mark." Several beats pass. "Mark." The lasers flash out again, followed by the spikes. They converge on the already damaged area of the Senile Watchman and break it's back. The ship comes apart with several small explosions. Soon the niao cruiser is little more than several pieces of debris.
"Status on the Skoll and Hati," Sora calls out.
"Skoll reports enemy destroyed with no damage," a technician responds.
"Hati is reporting the same," a different one says.
"Perfect," I say.
"Order them to Target Alpha with all speed," Sora says. She looks to the communications tech. "Communicate to the other fleet elements to stay in formation around us. Take nothing for granted. Helm, take us to Target Alpha." A chorus of 'ayes' come make to her and Sora nods with a small smile on her face.
Glover abruptly jumps out of his seat with a large whoop. "That was fun! I've wanted to take this girl for a spin for too long." He cranes his head up with his eyes closed. "You done good, dragon." Then he leaps at Sora and catches her up in a bear hug. "We did it, Sora!"
The small woman manages to wiggle free enough to hammer an elbow into Glover's ribs. He lets her go with a grunt of pain. I had been planning on congratulating him but now he's made an ass of himself. So I say to Poisonseed, "Alert me when we have one hour left on the clock."
She nods, "As you will, my Lord." She is steaming mad, so I waste no time leaving the bridge. Tiamat follows behind. We make our way back to our quarters. Thankfully, the crewmembers only greet me with respectful nods. It had taken some prodding for Poisonseed to reverse that order but I had eventually convinced her that all the bowing was inefficient.
The moment we enter our cabin, Nailah throws off her hood, erasing the face of Tiamat. She shakes her dark hair out and says, "Whew, I am not a fan of having that hood up for so long." I lock the doors to the cabin and pull back my own hood. I'm not sure what she is talking about. Her hair is only a little longer than my own and I find the cloaks quite breathable. Also, the hologram masks are undoubtedly more comfortable than any physical mask would be.
Nailah shucks her cloak completely and pulls off her gloves as well, rotating her shoulders with a groan. I lean against one wall and cross my arms. "If you're so eager to be out of your uniform, why don't you get changed for a little sparring," I say.
"Really?" she asks, looking at me with a mixture of exasperation and pleading.
"Really." I've been pushing her hard since we arrived aboard the Nidhoggr, training her in both hand-to-hand and small arms combat. I've also been having her exercise twice daily to build up her strength and endurance. She always does whatever I ask but usually with a fair amount of grousing. I wonder how she got away with that on the Crescent. Sometimes I consider sharing with her some of the things the Doctor put me through. Compared to that, her training was a day at the park.
Nailah grabs a couple articles of clothing and disappears into the wash room still softly grumbling. I shake my head and peel my own raiment off, keeping the cloak close at hand in case of emergency. The troops could see the Lindwyrm in a pair of shorts but they wouldn't see him without his face. I pull on a loose black tank top and shorts. When Nailah emerges from the washroom, she wearing the same.
There are scrapes on her knees and elbows from times she'd fallen to the carpet. Part of a large bruise that covered most of her left thigh peeked out from the bottom of her shorts. Fortunately, though, she hadn't yet suffered an injury that made me slow down the pace of her training. She tosses the other garments from her uniform on to the bed and says, "Alright, ready when you are."
I move the area of the room where there is the most space and stand casually. Then I command, "Attack." Nailah walks forward cautiously, holding her hands up in a guard. Then she explodes into motion with a front kick. I dodge to the side easily and tap her ankle to let her know I could have grabbed it and thrown her off balance. Nailah growls and tries a kick low at my ankles, I easily step away from it but, in an impressive display of agility, she manages to balance herself enough on the foot that missed the strike to whip around in in a roundhouse aimed at my head. I barely managed to get my hand up in time to catch her ankle with one hand. The impact actually does jar my wrist and shoulder--though I let none of that show on my face. "Not bad," I say. "But even if you hit me, you probably would have lost your balance. I wouldn't recommend all or nothing attacks in real fight.
Letting go of her ankle also causes her lose her balance and Nailah falls on her backside. "Yeah, yeah," she says under her breath. "Damn it." She gets back to her feet, rubbing her butt and glaring at me. I like that she is so determined to tag me at least once. She is just a beginner, after all.
"Alright, that's enough of that," I say. "Try a snap kick at my at my chest." Nailah nods and launches a foot at me. I catch it easily and say, "Again." After a few more, I stop and correct her form. We methodically work our way through a the rest of the strikes I am teaching. Since she's small and won't ever have a great amount of upper-body strength, I've focused on kicks, knee and elbow strikes and even headbutts.
"So," I say casually, while Nailah is driving her knee into the palm of my hand. "What did you think of what just happened?"
Nailah wipes a sweaty strand of hair from her face. "What, the attack?" I nod my head. She shrugs. "We won. Pretty easily. That other ship never stood a chance."
"You seemed surprised when I ordered Captain Myles to fire on the second ship a second time," I prod.
"Well..." Nailah hesitates for a moment. "I guess it just didn't seem necessary."
I keep my eyes locked on Nailah. "Why do you think that I did it, then?"
Nailah scratches her finger with one cheek. "I know that you're trying to make the niao afraid of you..."
"But?" I prompt.
"I don't think that what you did will make them very afraid. I think that it will mostly just make them really angry."
"They are afraid of Hachimantato," I point out.
"Yeah." Naialh tips her head back and forth. "But Hachimantaro has been around for a long time and attacked a lot of ships. Plus people don't know that much about him. I think the mystery helps keep niao afraid."
I nod. "All good points. Niao also don't know very much about Yggdrasil. Do you think if I attacked several colonies and destroy them like I did this one, they would begin to dread the Lindwyrm the way they do Hachimantaro?"
"They could," Nailah acknowledges.
"So do you think that's what we should do?"
"Maybe..." Nailah says thoughtfully. "But has Hachimantaro changed anything? People are still abducted from Earth and sold into slavery right?"
I have to force down a smile. That was the question I was hoping she would ask. "No," I say. "Hachimantaro hasn't changed a thing. Niao are a little more nervous when they transport slaves but they don't stop. Humans might hope that he saves them but less than one percent have that prayer answered."
"I'm sorry," Nailah says. And it sounds like she truly means it.
I shake my head. "Don't be. I knew what Hachimantaro was when I created him. He's been useful and will continue to be so but he was never going to change the universe." I wave my hand, casting the issue aside. "More importantly, do you think that if Yggdrasil does what Hachimantaro does but on a grander scale, do you think that that would cow the niao?"
Nailah thinks about it for a long moment. "Maybe. You would certainly frighten some but a lot would want to fight back." I wait, hoping she has at least one other layer of analysis. "I don't think it would work if you only attacked colonies like this though. Then a lot of niao wouldn't think that it affected them."
That finally does bring a smile to the surface. "Yes, Nailah. It seems your father passed down his head for strategy." Nailah lightly blushes at the praise, which is what I was after with the sop. Clearly her father was actually a dolt when it came to strategy, considering the horrific outcome of his own revolt. I hope that Nailah proves to be smarter than her old man. Since I was training her, I had every confidence that she would. "Continue to think about what you would do if you had my resources," I say. "In the meantime, how about we start with twenty squat thrusts?"
"What?" Nailah exclaimes. "But I thought I answered your questions right!"
I cock my head. "Those questions weren't about being correct or incorrect. I was merely gauging your thoughts. And I wouldn't use exercise as some kind of punishment."
"Oh," Nailah says, a little deflated. I stare at her waiting for her to start but instead she shuffles her feet and says, "In that case, I do have something I want to add."
The way she says that immediately puts my back up but I try to merely look curious. "What is that?"
"The reason I was surprised was it kind seems like you...like it wasn't necessary to..." She shakes her head.
"You already told me that," I put in when she trails off, even though I know she doesn't mean it in the same way.
"No. Never mind. I shouldn't have brought it up."
"Tell me," I say, already knowing what she is getting at.
Nailah takes a deep breath and, speaking quickly, says, "It feels like you murdered them."
"This is war," I point out. "What do you think your father did when he attacked the niao?"
Nailah squirms, looking decidedly uncomfortable. "I know but they were no threat anymore. You crippled their ship. You killed them when they were helpless."
I can feel anger surging up in me and do my best to tamp it down. This wasn't unexpected but I still find it infuriating. Niao were the ones who destroyed her life and killed her father and her brother. Why should she be the least bit upset that there were a few less of them in the galaxy? "All of those niao were soldiers," I say coldly. "Every single one of them that survived would have been assigned to another ship, issued new weapons and be that much more motivated to wipe us from the galaxy."
"O-okay," Nailah stammers, hunching away from me.
"Moreover," I say, my voice rising in volume. "Every niao in the universe is complicit in letting their government oppress and use humanity. Every one of them benefits from it and every one of them is guilty for it." I'm shouting and glaring at her by the end.
Nailah is visibly afraid and making herself as small as possible. "I'm sorry, Cato! I shouldn't have said anything."
"I am the Lindwyrm," I growl.
"I'm sorry. Lindwyrm," she responds softly.
"Do your exercises," I say, trying and probably failing to keep the disgust out of my voice. I turn away from her and head for my bed. That was disappointing. I guess I should have expected it. She spent so long among the niao, it only made sense that she would develop some kind of sympathy for them. Stockholm syndrome. She'd need to get over that.
I access the net, thinking that enough time has passed that the news orgs will have received word of what's happening in the system. I'm right. On every major network, the short video of me introducing Yggdrasil is posted and being relentlessly dissected. With differing levels of hysteria depending on the network. Most of them have already looked up what 'Yggrasil' and 'Lindwyrm' mean and I find myself laughing internally and how incorrect some of the information is. I can't wait to see their reaction to what I do next.
While I am checking the news, I keep one eye on Nailah. I am happy to see that she moves through her routine of exercise without me having to tell her to. This cabin is hardly the best place to get in shape but once we get back to my Moonbase, I should be able to get her in condition to keep up with Hachimantaro. Hopefully. I'm not quite sure where the line is between what I can do and what a normal human can do. The things that were done to me by the Doctor aren't replicable in an adult for the most part. Though maybe some of them are. I should review the Doctor's notes when I have a chance.
I slip off the bed and say, "Alright, Nailah, I have something new to show you."
She completes one last push-up and then gets to her feet. "Okay." No complaints. I'm hoping we can move past and forget that moment of ugliness earlier but perhaps it did some good.
"I've already advised you to mostly use your legs when striking," I begin. Nailah nods. "But when your smaller than your opponent, striking attacks aren't always the best idea. Especially since you shouldn't be fighting hand-to-hand unless you are taken unaware and disarmed or can't get a clean shot before you're attacked."
"In that type of situation, you're most likely to be grappling. To effectively grapple, you'll need to understand leverage and momentum and also what areas to hold or twist to disable the attacker." It occurs to me that I need to look up how a niao body is different than a human body as far as weak points and debilitating holds. Grappling is not an art I need to use a lot. The Doctor had an antipathy for formal martial arts disciplines but I learned a few so that my fighting style would be different when I used different identities. I haven't yet ever fought as the Lindwyrm but, just in case, I decided he would be a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So it makes sense to teach a little of that.
I walk around her and then touch her wrist, elbow and shoulder. I notice her shiver when I do that. "Your goal in grappling is to disable your opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible. To do that, you need to understand how to use leverage." I grasp her wrist and rotate her arm backwards just to the point where is should be a little uncomfortable. "Can you feel how easy it would be to hurt you when I have your arm at this angle?"
"Yes," Nailah says with more than a little nervousness.
I let her wrist go and she cradles her arm to her body, rubbing her shoulder. Maybe I twisted it a bit too far. "If your enemy has a weapon, that is the best way to disarm him. From that position, your relative strength doesn't matter. It only takes a little pressure to cause significant pain and damage the joint." Nailah nods, her eyes a little wide. "Now, let's move on to chokeholds."